The Bakery Conversation

I got sandwiched in a conversation on my Saturday morning bakery run. In the back of the Edgerton Bakery, rolls and loaves of fresh bread were coming out of the oven and needed to be sliced. That left one high school girl to work the counter up front for a whole line of customers. Outside it was windy and raining lightly, a hard drizzle, and the temperature was in the mid-forties. Miserable. We were in the middle of a string of cold, rainy, early spring days, still shaken from the long winter past but daring to hope for a 75-degree day that we might stretch ourselves collectively and tell ourselves again why we’ve chosen to live here. That kind of day was nowhere in sight, however, which left us feeling uncharitable and almost unjustly persecuted.

“So much for global warming,” a man to my left began.

“Like those Minnesotans who are for global warming,” another answered across my person to the first speaker. Pause without response. “You know–there are a group of Minnesotans who say they are in favor of global warming.”

“Oh, in favor of global warming? Ha ha–I get it. Yeah, we could use it about now.”

And here we go. Global warming, Barack Obama, Mexican immigration. I always feel at risk in conversations like this. Like I should pipe up with a good liberal arts perspective to balance the scales. Then I think, it’s easier not to say anything. To listen.

“Hope this doesn’t mean it’s gonna be like last summer.”

“It never did get warm.”

“I think we had six hours of 90 degree weather.”

“All summer.”

“Yup, all summer.”

We live on a ridge in the middle of the continent. The nearest ocean is days away, but we’re far enough east of the Rockies that aridity–real drought–hasn’t been a serious problem since at least the 1980’s (knock on wood). But winters are often brutal. If our winters would turn into the typical winters of, say, Kansas City, life would be seemingly easier in southwest Minnesota. It’s not bad logic, just self-interested.

“But it’s as a whole that the earth is warming.” Sarcasm.

“Ha ha. Yeah right.”

“Well, 2001–2001 was the hottest year. But since then it’s been down.”

Actually I’ve been told that that there was a bit of a push of “global cooling” in the 1970s. Seems incredibly ironic that ideas could change that fast, even though today such ’70s thinking has been discredited by the scientific community. Still, in Middle America it makes one even more wary of new global theories, especially when they get associated with a particular type, a particular politics.

“But that’s not what they want you to believe.”

“Nope. That’s not what Al Gore wants you to believe.”

“And he’s made a mint off this thing.”

“Oh, millions.”

I had a prof in college who lauded Al Gore for his work on the environment long before An Inconvenient Truth. I’d never thought about the fact that he’s probably made money off of it. It’s a tough jab to parry. As soon as someone stands to gain personally from an issue–see Halliburton and the war in Iraq–pure motives are shot. The Marxist critic Frederic Jameson has said that “ecological politics tend to be bourgeois politics”. It’s a tough jab to parry, that we sit around and talk about the environment because our money enables us to do so. In a more complete form, Jameson’s quote runs like this: “My observation of these things in the West–is that ecological politics tend to be bourgeois politics, that lower-class people are interested in other issues that are sometimes incompatible with ecology” (Jameson on Jameson: Conversations on Cultural Marxism, Ian Buchanan, ed., 79).

“So how d’you like hauling hogs?”

The conversation turns. Or does it? One of these men used to be a long-distance trucker, it turns out. Now he hauls hogs shorter distances–hundreds of miles instead of thousands of miles, or, perhaps more likely, thousands of miles instead of tens of thousands of miles. I would bet the farm that as he drives, he listens to talk radio–thus the information that “2001 was our hottest year” and his general acerbic skepticism. He doesn’t know me, identifying my place in the line by saying “That guy in the yellow coat is the end of the line,” when someone asks.

The other gentleman is a shirt-tail relative of mine through marriage. I’ve talked to his wife, who often asks about my parents, many times, but never to him. He may know me but doesn’t acknowledge me, nor I him–an older, never-talked-to relative. By his clothes, he, too, is a “working man.”

I won’t enter this conversation because I have no “street cred” with these men. Though I’ve lived almost my whole life in the community (I defected for four years of college in the city), though I’m the son of a farmer (I defected to a career in higher education), and though “my issues” are really also their issues (the integrity of the landscape, economic viability on small farms), I’m now part of the academic establishment that is theoretical, impractical, liberal, and distant. Or I’m afraid that’s how I might be perceived if I jumped in with a comment such as, “But gentlemen, your socioeconomic status predisposes you to the conservative rhetoric which makes you pawns of the global capitalist establishment.”

No, if I’m to enter this conversation, I must do so from a practical route, one that proves that I have local knowledge and that I can apply any theoretical knowledge pragmatically. I must enter the conversation on their terms and engage their way of life.

I don’t. I hold my tongue and think of my bakery order.

It’s well nigh impossible to think of doing things other than the way we do them. Anyone who asks us to do things differently seems to threaten our very way of life, and there may be nothing more religious than the collective idea of “a way of life.” That is, if Al Gore’s interest in global warming can be questioned as “bourgeois politics,” these men’s interest in driving over the idea of global warming as so much road kill is equally a type of socioeconomic politics.

It strikes me that, in this bakery line in the midst of a reluctant spring in the middle of the continent, this is a question, ultimately, of faith. Not quite religious faith, though there are ties, but faith in a story.

I don’t know that one can call belief in one’s own system, one’s stories, one’s own way of life, “faith.” If faith is being “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” then faith in one’s own way of life is not really faith, it’s something else. That is, one quality of faith, it seems to me, ought to be that it’s a bit nonsensical and beyond self-interest.

On the other hand, however, what strikes me about the global warming story is that it does encourage us to think beyond self-interest. Think of the small group of islanders in the Pacific who can’t afford to lose six inches of coast. Think of the already narrow, and now shrinking, temperature bands within which certain creatures can survive (note: I’m resisting the politicized polar bear; think instead human being). Think of living in a way that doesn’t mean plugging something in, flipping a switch, turning a wheel, throwing away. And that’s hard. That takes imagination. And faith of a sort.

On the landscape of the Midwest and West, the worst kind of mistake can be misplaced faith. Our history, though, is full of such misplaced faiths. The myth that rain would follow the plow comes to mind, among others. No, although myths have driven us out here and although we cling to our favorite myths, we’re tremendously skeptical of new myths. We stick to what we [think we] know.

And so I leave without opening my mouth once. I leave to sort out for myself myths false and true, to think about how to engage myths in bakery conversations, how to unify disparate elements of environmental politics around a central myth. In an increasingly fragmented world, that common vision seems more and more illusory.

Once again, this is where faith enters the picture. Faith gains its strength from the biblical vision of what might be, of a land flowing with milk and honey, of a holy city where Christ himself is the light. Of course, even these visions and how one interprets them and uses them to serve political ends can lead to controversy. This gets at another quality of faith–while it can be political, it cannot only be political. While faith can have a vision of an end goal that goal must be fluid, not set in stone. While faith can and should have earthly ends in mind, it must also have the mind of heaven.

When it comes to the global environment, then, I’m sure of what I hope for and certain of what I do not see.

Howard Schaap teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.